Nov. 26 – Teaching Vocabulary with Image and Rhyme

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“Alright, we’ll take your word for it.”

Our brains are hard-wired to recognize images – we see image so much more clearly than we do text.  I am convinced that there is a way to make use of that wiring to teach college students new words.  This semester I decided to move beyond my own paltry imagination and lack of drawing skills and try out some of the college-level vocabulary cartoon books.  I made a list of the words for which I had cartoons, then we chose words to learn from that list.

For each new word, I shared my vocabulary cartoon resources with my students, then looked for feedback.  In quizzes, I asked them to identify which words triggered a memory of the cartoons and which of those remembered images helped them identify the meaning.  Many more students remembered the images than the meanings, which tells me that, even for professional vocabulary cartoonists (?) it is not easy to effectively connect meaning and image.

In previous semesters I have had the students create their own images, and I think that turned out almost as well as using these pre-made cartoons.  There is a lot of initial resistance to creating their own cartoons for their vocabulary words, even after seeing my pathetic stick figure drawings on the board.  Lack of self-confidence about drawing skills is rampant.  But I think that if I use the extensive context example practice first, we could come up with images for the words as a class.

Image is such a powerful trigger for memory that I don’t want to give up on finding a way to utilize that trigger as I struggle to help my students build up their lexicon, to even their chances of succeeding in the academic world.  A worthy goal, a mighty summit.  hi ho.  Next semester for sure.

Don’t Trust the Dictionary


photo by Joelk75 @ flickr

I have found a new site that solves a major vocabulary-teaching problem.

When teaching new words to my students, I used to struggle with the gap between dictionary definitions and common usage.  If students create a sentence based solely on the dictionary definition of a new word, nine times out of ten (made-up statistic) the sentence will sound wrong.  Trying to explain why it sounds wrong was a challenge I often struggled to meet.

So I started requiring the students to use online dictionary sites that include context examples.  It is surprisingly obvious when the students have made up sentences rather than copied legitimate example sentences, which taught me that the dictionary definition is not enough to help them learn to use new words appropriately.

Last semester we used a variety of dictionary sites, and I had the students rate them according to their usability.  I wanted sites that included context examples, but there wasn’t a lot of consistency about whether or not a site included context examples.  Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

Well, eureka!  I just discovered Wordnik, a site that exists to provide definitions and a multitude of example sentences.  I have revised my computer lab assignment, and now the students will be required to use Wordnik first, then find a similar definition and context sentence (if available) at another dictionary site.

Check out Wordnik – way cool!

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

Building Blocks of a College Reading Class

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photo by riekhavoc on flickr

As I prepare to teach our most basic reading course for college freshmen this fall, I find myself trying to distill what I know about teaching reading to its most basic, crucial components.  I will have these students five days a week, which is intimidating but also freeing – I know that active, creative teaching strategies take time, and meeting every day will give us that time.

So, what is at the heart of reading instruction?  At first I thought I would go micro to macro: start with the smallest parts – words and then details.  Once the students understand the words and recognize the details, the comprehension skills – identifying the main idea, seeing organizational patterns in text, recognizing author’s tone and purpose, etc. – will all start to fall into place.

But as I was writing this (the first time, before Word Press ate it and I had to start over), I realized that before I have students break down paragraphs for words and details, I want them to learn to preview the text before reading. So few students know how to do this or realize how crucial it is for understanding; many students identify previewing as the most useful skill they learn in my reading classes.  Previewing gives us a framework we use to make sense of the details.  So, our semester will consist of playing with words, discovering the power of standing on the mountain top and experiencing the view, then learning to analyze the details.

Today I tried out my plan when I met with a new adjunct teacher, gave her the textbooks and a brief summary of this post as a way to help her decide what to focus on as she begins to plan her classes.  Went well.  She was pleased and encouraged and said this approach made a lot of sense.  (She was also relieved that I didn’t expect her to cover the whole book, but that’s another post for another day.)  Sense is good.  I’m never quite sure how well sense translates to classroom success, but remain ever hopeful.  I’ll let you know.  It’s all in the details.

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

The Building Blocks – Teaching College Vocabulary 101

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As I prepare to teach three sections of basic college reading this fall, I am working to identify a few basic, semester-long themes that will most effectively help my students improve their reading.

One of those critical themes will be vocabulary.  Teaching vocabulary is so crucial to building college reading and writing skills, but it is a slow, challenging process.  Research doesn’t support the effectiveness of the method I was most comfortable with: teach the word and its meaning, have students use it in a sentence, define it correctly on a quiz, and move on.  Rats.

I have gone down many vocabulary-instruction-paths in the past few years, and I am sifting through the successes and failures to decide on a structure to use this fall.  I need to be more organized than usual, as I tend to start classroom projects with great enthusiasm and determination, then start to forget components and follow-through as the semester moves on.  Then there are the snow days that fall on the only day we are able to get into the computer lab, the virulent flu strains that sweep through campus and decimate classroom presentations and my so well-planned schedule, and so on through the semester.

My vocabulary project will incorporate multiple intelligences, which means I will need to give students the opportunity to visualize new words, make music with them, move with them, see the logic in them, share them with others, internalize them and finally claim those words as their own.  I will also need to directly teach them about multiple intelligences before starting all this because, if they don’t understand the theory, my students stand so firmly on their dignity that almost everything creative is challenged as “too kindergarten.”  Well, okay then.

I will share my thinking as it takes shape, and hope to chronicle the progress of my plan as the semester unfolds.

2011 © HeyTeach101 &